Gavin Newsom Is in Trouble. Could He Take Biden with Him?

Gov. Gavin Newsom in San Bernardino.
Photo by Watchara Phomicinda/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
August 23, 2021

Arnold Schwarzenegger was right. In March, no one thought that Governor Gavin Newsom had to worry about the Republican-led recall campaign against him. Back then, Newsom called the recall a “distraction,” waving it off as a pandemic hobby for anti-vaxxers and Trump goons. But Schwarzenegger, who was elected governor after the recall of Democrat Gray Davis in 2003, told Politico’s Carla Marinucci that, actually, Newsom had reason for concern. It doesn’t matter that Democrats outnumbered Republicans in California by a 2:1 margin, Schwarzenegger said, or that the state’s once-healthy Republican Party had shriveled into a reactionary collection of racist surfer dads in Orange County and MAGA Facebook moms in Modesto. What mattered, he argued, was the perception that Californians are working hard, with many falling behind because of the coronavirus pandemic, while the government in Sacramento fiddled. “That’s what I see as the similarities from 2003,” Schwarzenegger concluded. “It’s the same vibe.”

The vibes: People in California like to talk about them, especially where I live, in Venice, on the westside of Los Angeles. Usually the vibes are good. Heading into the final few weeks of the Sept. 14 recall election, however, the vibes are decidedly bad. Crime, wildfires, and the scourge of the Delta variant are top of mind. Homelessness is out of control, making homeowners and renters alike think twice about supporting Newsom, even if they cast ballots to elect Joe Biden in 2020. Some of these afflictions are unique to California, but their clumsy handling by Democrats here should be an ominous warning sign for a party whose messaging on crime has been muddled between law-and-order candidates like former cop Eric Adams in New York City, and outspoken defund-the-police progressives, like Cori Bush in Missouri. Whether or not the Newsom recall succeeds, Republicans have exposed a clear vulnerability for Democrats heading into next year’s midterms: claiming that California’s supposed societal breakdown is the inevitable byproduct of lefty decadence, the failure of elite liberal governance—and the future of Biden’s America.

These days, the messiah of All Politics Is Local here is Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff. “Nothing will change your political viewpoint more than a transient taking a shit in your front yard,” he told me. Villanueva is a Democrat, elected in 2018, but he’s since gone full-blown Law and Order, appearing on Fox News to belittle “woke privileged Democrats” who want a more “compassionate” approach to criminals and homeless people. “The Democratic Party of 2021 has smoked some powerful stuff that’s made them blind to what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “Democrats think party loyalty alone is going to help them survive? They’re fooling themselves. This has nothing to do with politics. It’s not a Trump thing, it’s not a Republican thing. Normal people just want normal stuff they should expect from a functioning government and civil society.”

That frustration is on full display in Venice. After an outcry from westside residents fed up with the homelessness, crime, fires, and rampant drug use all around them, Mike Bonin, the progressive city councilman representing parts of Venice and the westside, finally put into motion a plan to clean up the tent encampments along the Venice boardwalk this summer. But it might be too late to save his political career. Bonin is facing a recall effort of his own over his slow response to the homelessness crisis, supported by plenty of local Democrats who listen to NPR, practice yoga, and drink green smoothies.

While I was on the phone with him, Villanueva texted me a photo from an I-10 underpass near Banc of California stadium showing a quarter mile-long pile of trash. “There’s garbage everywhere, and no one wants to clean it up,” he said. “The city isn’t doing shit.” Crime is also up throughout the state. Even former California Senator Barbara Boxer was attacked and mugged in broad daylight in a “nice” part of Oakland last month. “How could you do this to a grandmother!” she cried.

Covid, of course, has only compounded the apocalyptic mood. California’s unemployment system functions about as well as a late-Soviet grocery store, leaving too many working people without the pandemic benefits they were promised. Wealthy white people pulled their kids out of school during the pandemic and created learning “pods,” while brown and Black students with working parents stayed at home, logging in for a few hours of haphazard online learning, without the meals and programs they had at their schools. Business owners—merchants, restaurant owners, contractors, salon owners—they’re furious at Newsom for what they considered nonsensical and random shutdown measures, a fury that peaked during the winter shutdown when the state was grappling with a second wave of coronavirus.

These are all reasons why Schwarzenegger was right in another sense. He told Politico that the election wouldn’t just be about two political parties, Republicans versus Democrats, each side marshaling their voters to the polls. “It had nothing to do then—and it has nothing to do today—with either party,” Schwarzenegger said. “People are dissatisfied. [The recall is] the people’s way of kind of letting off some steam, and then they decide: Do we want to follow through, or not follow through?” Indeed, for many voters on the wrong side of government’s failures, real or perceived, the recall simply represents the first big opportunity of 2021 to say “fuck you” to a Person In Charge. That person happens to be Gavin Newsom, and he’s in real trouble.

The Newsom campaign and dial-a-quote political strategists want voters to think that the recall is just another G.O.P. coup attempt. “This is going to be totally tribal,” David Townsend, a Democratic consultant, told the New York Times last week. “This is not going to be about Newsom. It’s going to be about whether Democrats want Trump to have a governor in California.”

In fact, the complete opposite is true. If the election were about partisanship and tribalism, Newsom would be on pace for something like a 63-34 victory, the margin here in last year’s extremely tribal presidential election. But the race is much closer than that. The FiveThirtyEight polling average of the recall currently has KEEP at 48.8 percent and REMOVE at 47.6 percent. That question on the recall ballot—Question One—has been the centerpiece of Newsom’s campaign all year. But Newsom’s real predicament coalesces around the fact that plenty of the people considering REMOVE are lifelong Democrats who voted for Joe Biden in 2020, like Alex Chavez, the owner of Service & Supply, a barbershop with locations in Venice and downtown Los Angeles.

“My biggest gripe with Newsom has been the handling of Covid,” Chavez told me. “The decision to open bars and restaurants before schools and other businesses? As a parent and a business owner, you’re telling us masks work, and the first thing you open are places where you can take your mask off and be social? It all seemed counterintuitive, and also in his personal interest, since he owns a restaurant and he’s a wine guy.”

Chavez, 34, said he closed his shops in Spring 2020 even before the first shutdown order, to be a good citizen. But after a year of mixed messages, he and his colleagues felt confused and forgotten, watching other businesses open up again while they couldn’t. “It just felt like they deemed us not big enough to worry about. Like, we’re just barbers and hairdressers and nail techs. They didn’t understand that we are not normal everyday people, with a household and other employees relying on us.”

Never mind that plenty of pandemic restrictions have been local orders, handed down by mayors and health directors in counties and cities across California, not the governor directly. But in the fog of memory, it doesn’t matter: All of that political frustration falls back on Newsom, and he makes for a convenient target. Almost too handsome, he looks like a crooked politician straight out of Hollywood central casting. A friend of mine in Santa Monica—a white guy in his 30s who works in tech and voted for Biden—texted me that he’s voting for the recall. Why? “He’s a standard politician bureaucrat. Crime and homelessness out of control. People fleeing CA for other states. Why not go for change?”

It’s a bad rap, actually. Yes, Newsom is rich and looks fantastic in a suit. But he grew up dyslexic and shy, and fought more than plenty of his own personal demons. Beneath the shiny hair and Chiclet white teeth, he’s a sophisticated policy thinker and the author of two books. Early in his career, as the mayor of San Francisco, he made the heroic, renegade decision to grant marriage licenses for gay couples at a time when most Democrats, including Barack Obama, were afraid of culture war backlash. Since then, Newsom climbed the political ladder and waited for Jerry Brown to finally ride off to his ranch in Colusa County. He was elected governor in 2018 by a landslide, easily dispatching businessman John Cox, now one of his many Republican challengers in the recall. (Cox is the one running the “Beauty and the Beast” ads on TV, with the live Grizzly Bear. Cox is the beast, ready to clean up California. Newsom, well, you get it.)

But despite receiving high marks from voters during the early days of the pandemic for his handling of the shutdown and untold other disruptions, support for Newsom has waned. Voters still don’t know much about his personality or agenda, and his campaign has struggled to articulate a message. Newsom frequently engages with the press and gives plenty of speeches—he rolls his sleeves up for photo ops, cleaning up trash piles from under freeways, meeting with homeless people, and inspecting wildfire damage—but it’s also clear that Newsom’s campaign knows he doesn’t test well with voters. Newsom doesn’t even front his own ads. For that, recall opponents enlisted Elizabeth Warren, who registered almost no support among people of color during her presidential campaign, but will probably play well with the aforementioned NPR listeners. Their latest spot calls the recall a matter of “life and death,” warning that any of Newsom’s Republican challengers would roll back mask and vaccine protocols and send California reeling backward. Newsom doesn’t appear in that one either.

The one thing that everyone in California does know about Newsom, of course, is how he was caught on camera last November attending an indoor dinner with friends at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, without a mask, even as he was telling Californians to stay home and mask up. It only fed into the perception of Newsom as another rich, privileged Democrat—cozy with tech titans in Silicon Valley and the Bay, but out of touch with everyone else who was getting drilled by the economic slowdown. It was almost as bad as the time Chris Christie closed down the beaches of New Jersey as part of a 2017 government shutdown, only to be photographed days later marooned on the sand with his family. Before the French Laundry fiasco, recall supporters only had about 55,000 signatures, well short of the 2 million needed to certify the ballot measure. A month after Newsom’s dinner, the petition had passed one million signatures.

But another one of Newsom’s many problems is that he isn’t running against a single opponent he can demonize. Newsom has far more money behind him—Netflix co-C.E.O. Reed Hastings is helping bankroll his TV ads—but he’s also fighting a multifront battle against several opponents, none of whom come off as scary or as Trumpy or as radical as the Newsom campaign would wish. Complicating matters even more, Newsom can’t really attack any of them by name, since that would inadvertently raise their profiles. So, he’s left vaguely alluding to one Republican or the other, and letting reporters fill in the blanks.

The current frontrunner is conservative talk show host Larry Elder, the “Sage from South Central.” Right-wingers love him—he’s always Zooming into Fox News, where he’s floated the idea of eliminating the minimum wage and removing all mask mandates in California. But his TV ads, like those of his fellow Republican candidates, mostly focus on topics a lot of Californians agree with: fighting crime, fixing homelessness, lowering taxes, and fixing the state’s dysfunctional unemployment system. Few of Newsom’s opponents are bothering with the details, but collectively they’re hammering voters with the same advertising blitz: Newsom has failed California, so give someone else a shot.

Elder has been subject to a relentless oppo dump showing up in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, with stories about his past radical statements and a recent article claiming that he once brandished a handgun at an ex-girlfriend during a fight. (Elder vehemently denied the allegation.) Elder, though, has stayed relentlessly on message, attacking the media, calling Newsom an elitist, and running a series of simple, straight-to-camera ads that don’t mention his party affiliation—only the claim that Newsom has one set of rules for himself and his rich friends, and another for hard working Californians. The polls are few and far between, but in July, Elder was leading all candidates with 18 percent of the vote.

The way the recall ballot works, that’s all it might take to win. If enough people vote to recall Newsom on Question One, the next governor will be the replacement option on the ballot with the most votes. There are 46 possible candidates for Question Two, most of them gadflies. But that means the next governor of California could very easily be a talk show host who wins election with something like 20 percent of the vote.

That person will only be in Sacramento for a year until next year’s midterms, but the Newsom campaign wants voters to know that’s more than enough time to do some damage in a blue state that takes its liberal bent for granted. And, some Democrats whisper, what if something happens to a certain 88-year old California Senator? Yep, Governor Larry Elder wouldn’t just have the power to make appointments to the judicial bench or state regulatory commissions. He’d have the power to swing control of the United States Senate.

Democrats around the country have slipped back into a risky kind of complacency now that Trump is out of office, and things are no different in California. College-educated voters who spent 2020 posting on their Instagram stories about the existential importance of voting and Yas Kweening Stacey Abrams on Twitter? They now seem checked out. I know far too many people in California, many of them millennials, who voted for Biden last year, but today either don’t know that there’s a recall, don’t know how the ballot works, or simply don’t care. Those voters are even harder to reach in today’s fractured media environment, especially in an off-year election when a lot of people are trying to take a breather from politics.

A July poll from the Los Angeles Times and UC-Berkeley told the story and set off panic among Democrats: Almost 90 percent of Republicans expressed a high level of interest in the recall election, while only 58 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independent voters said the same. The poll also revealed a weak spot for Newsom among Hispanic voters, who make up roughly 28 percent of the California electorate. While the poll found that a majority of registered Hispanic voters opposed the recall, the Hispanics most likely to vote were more inclined to vote against Newsom. Meanwhile, the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative has projected that the Latino share of the vote will be smaller in September than it was in 2020.

Javier Gonzalez, a labor organizer who works for the Janitor’s Union in Los Angeles, SEIU Local 1877, and worked for Bernie Sanders, said Latino voters have long felt that the government has left them behind. But that frustration grew more acute during the pandemic, especially as Hispanic communities suffered higher Covid rates than whites. “They are tired of being the progressive voter that’s taken for granted,” Gonzales told me. “Average working people in L.A. are increasingly Latino. They repair cars, they’re painters, they work construction, they have small businesses. They are feeling like they pay all the taxes, they go to church, they follow the rules, they raise the kids. But then they hear, ‘We are shutting down, but please come in to work.’ … This is their opportunity to say Fuck You.” The way Gonzalez tells it, Latino voters don’t even need to vote against Newsom to send him packing. His coalition is fragile enough that they can end his governorship simply by staying home.

Newsom’s mission in these remaining few weeks is to let voters know that yes, there’s a recall, here’s how it works, and please send in your ballot. Newsom’s team is sending out half a million text messages every day to registered Democrats asking them for support, and Stop The Republican Recall, the formal name for Newsom’s effort, is blanketing television and YouTube with anti-recall ads. Their late efforts might be working. Chavez, the barber shop owner, was ready to vote for the recall, but he did some research on the challengers and told me he’s decided to let Newsom have his final year. “I believe in science. I believe in fair wages. I don’t want the mask mandates and vaccines to go away,” he said. “But if the recall doesn’t go through, they shouldn’t be looking at that as a victory. There are enough people out there who are Democrats and independents who don’t like what’s going on.”

Ben LaBolt, a former Obama adviser who now lives in San Francisco, said Democrats in California have to do more to confront the real world problems of homelessness, housing, affordability, and safety. Those concerns, he said, transcend party lines, but Democrats in the state are so afraid of crossing left-wing activists and their academic concerns, hashed out on Twitter and other forums online, that they’re losing touch with working and middle class people. “Teachers and firefighters are forced to commute for hours, immigrant communities that moved here for a better life don’t feel safe, the socialists on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors argue about civil liberties for homeless people that are killing themselves with fentanyl in broad daylight, instead of forcing them into treatment and building the buildings that could house them,” he told me. LaBolt predicted that Newsom will win, in part, because Elder is “a Trumpian lunatic.” But he said that after the recall, “Dems would be smart to treat these concerns as serious issues that deserve a results-oriented response.”

What might save the campaign, in the end, is mail-in voting, instituted during the pandemic. Some 22 million registered voters are getting ballots in the mail as you read this. A little more than 10 million of them are Democrats. About five million are Republican, with five million more claiming no party affiliation. That might seem like easy math in favor of Newsom, but his campaign is quite obviously in break-glass mode, worried that enough Democrats might not even pay attention to the ballots in their mailboxes. Newsom’s campaign even called in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to campaign for him down the stretch. In California! “It won’t do shit,” Gonzales sniffed. Maybe, maybe not. But after four years of exhausting Trump panic, a grueling presidential campaign, and almost two years of a pandemic that seems like it’s not going away, Democrats are going to have to find a way to galvanize millions of voters once again—all to save a politician that not many people cared about in the first place.